Friday, May 22, 2020

Friday Questions

The only way to know it’s Friday these days is by Friday Questions. Happy to provide that service.

Michael starts us off:

Am I correct in assuming that it was unusual for relatively inexperienced writers like David and yourself to be made head writers on an established hit show like MASH? If so, did you feel any extra pressure or have any doubts you would be successful?

VERY unusual. We were promoted to head writers of MASH in the middle of season six when the previous head writer left to do other projects. I was 26.

To be honest, my partner David and I felt a little handcuffed by the previous head writer, who was a lovely guy and terrific writer but was very slow and deliberate. And that pace drove us nuts. So when he left and we were finally able to work at our pace we felt more relief than nerves.

Plus, at the time we had no idea the show would become so iconic and that 40 years later it would still be rerunning ten times a day around the world. We probably would have been petrified had we known. It’s the one time I was glad to be ignorant.

From Brian:

In light of the Jean Carroll anecdote, have you ever seen your material show up in other sitcoms?

No, but when I first started doing my snarky Oscar reviews I would email them to everyone in my contacts list. One was a very prominent talk show radio host in San Francisco. I heard from friends in the Bay Area that he would steal my material and claim it was his.

How coincidental that he had no funny observations after the following year’s Oscarcast once I took him off my distribution list.

PolyWogg wonders:

Did you ever have writers in your "group writers" rooms where someone went several weeks without getting any of their material "in"? Not really the same dynamic I guess...maybe more about needing to fire writers who just didn't fit in / couldn't produce over time?

Writers are like athletes. They all have strengths and weaknesses. A lights-out shooter in basketball might be terrible on defense, or a great catcher can’t hit.

Some writers might be shy and not great in a room but turn in terrific scripts. Neil Simon was like that. So if you have Neil in the room you don’t expect him to be a joke machine.

Likewise, some guys who are fantastic in rooms can’t write a decent draft to save their lives. And some are very good at breaking stories and solving story problems but jokes are not their strong suit.

All of that is to say if the quiet writer is contributing in other areas we are more apt to overlook his lack of jokes in rewrites. But if he’s not pulling his weight in other areas, then yes, we’ve been known to let writers go.

And finally, from Kendall Rivers:

Speaking of live tapings have you ever attended ones for The Odd Couple? I heard that back then it was as hard to get into an Odd Couple taping as it was for All In The Family at that time.

No, but even better, I saw Tony Randall & Jack Klugman and the TV cast do the ODD COUPLE play live at the Shubert Theatre. To hear them do Neil Simon’s words was a sheer joy.

Ironically, I did see a taping of ALL IN THE FAMILY.

What’s your Friday Question? Stay safe.


Andrew said...

Thank you for helping me start my Ftiday's right.

But concerning this: "Ironically, I did see a taping of ALL IN THE FAMILY." Wow, I'd love to hear more about that. Can you tell the story?

I mentioned this on a different post, but it belongs here. There's a great video of O'Connor and Stapleton meeting together on camera for one last time.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

FQ: In a writer's room, I assume some people dominate. Whether there's the one person who just shouts all of his jokes over others, or the person that laughs so hard it's almost obnoxious. This happens in rooms all across the business world as well. They may be super talented but it may stifle others from participating. Without naming names, any stories like that?

Pat Reeder said...

My wife Laura is a great comedy writer, but she told me she gave up on the idea of doing sitcoms after taking Danny Simon's class. He was pretty rude to her for not being a "shout out a punchline" type. He even told her she didn't belong in the business if she couldn't dominate in a writer's room. I told her that was ironic, since she works best off on her own in a quiet corner where she can think, like Danny Simon's more successful brother. We ended up launching a radio (now TV and Internet) comedy writing service that enabled us both to work in quiet rooms by ourselves, and we've made a good living out of our house for years.

I wish I could've seen Randall and Klugman do "The Odd Couple," but I did get to work briefly with Tony on some humorous instructional videos I wrote, and we saw him and Klugman do "The Sunshine Boys" on tour. Great performances. Only drawback was that Jack's voice was pretty quiet and rough due to his throat cancer so we had to strain a bit to hear him, but that couldn't be helped. And they respected Simon's script.

As much as I love Dick Van Dyke, when we saw him and Jerry Van Dyke do "Sunshine Boys," they changed it quite a bit. While it fit their personas better, it undermined the story and the mood. And I was disappointed that they didn't even do the "Dr. Kronkite" style vaudeville routine that's the highlight of the show. That bit is so funny that you can tell Neil must've spent a lot of time off by himself in a quiet corner, writing it.

thomas tucker said...

I went to a taping of The Odd Couple back in the day. The main thing I remember about it is that both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman came out to warm up the audience with jokes and stories prior to the taping.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

As I had done several years ago, very recently I wrote another spec for another popular animated series, however this time, I was unable to get it submitted, because, as the head writer explained to me, the network of which owns and airs said animated series has no actual procedures or process in place that allows the writers to legally accept and read scripts for their own show, so that was a dead-end. Even so, when I did this several years ago for another animated series, the show-runner of that show, who helped me get the ball rolling, was genuinely surprised that I even got that script submitted at all.

James said...

A Friday question, something a little different:

I recently came across some old Tommy Lasorda interviews. Sadly, the days of the colorful, managers are long gone. Do you have any good stories about big-personality managers, coaches, owners, etc., from your baseball career?

Jeff said...

I would love to hear your memories of attending an All in the Family taping too. My favorite show!

Unknown said...

Some may be surprised to learn that in the early days of ALL IN THE FAMILY and other Norman Lear shows there was no writers' room per se. Norman approved all stories and individual writers or teams were assigned to write or rewrite scripts. When the Tandem/TAT landscape expanded to 8 series on the air and others in development, each show had its own Executive Producer(s), who was in effect the "head writer." My question is: On a sitcom, what exactly does a "head writer" do? In the M*A*S*H days, did the "head writer" have the same responsibilities as the Executive Producer or Showrunner today?

Jay Moriarty

Kim A. Tenhor said...

A follow up question - So what was it like to be at the live taping of All in the Family? Can you describe the experience? For those of us living far away from LA attending a taping of a show is not commonplace. This sounds, to me anyway, like an exciting experience. Especially for such an iconic show. Many years ago, I was in LA and took the Paramount tour. Our tour group was able to sit in on a rehearsal of Wings. And who knows, maybe I saw you on the set...Anyway, I found it to be quite thrilling to be honest.

Thanks for the great stories and insights. Love the blog and listening to the podcast!

Kendall Rivers said...

@Jay Moriarty I knew that Seinfeld didn't have an official writers room but I never knew All In The Family and other Norman Lear shows didn't have the traditional writers room. I always just assumed they did but makes sense with Norman being so hands on.

Troy McClure said...

Ken, have you seen the story about the original screenwriter of Yesterday and how he got screwed over by Richard Curtis?

It makes for depressing reading. This guy sold his first feature screenplay at the age of 62 and ended up losing out on the main credit and on the financial success.

Curtis seems a total asshole, but I knew that already from him having written that pile of shit Love Actually.

It's bad enough for a studio, star or director to screw over a writer, but for a writer to do that to another writer is scumbag behavior.

. said...

If D.S.’s question, above, can clear the Review Tribunal, what level of depravity becomes block-worthy?

Respectfully Submitted,

Usually Blocked

Craig Russell said...

Friday Question. I was watching a later season episode of How I Met Your Mother, and Bryan Cranston was playing Hammond Druthers. He had just finished a phone conversation with Ted, and as the camera was panning off him, he looked just like Larry Linville as Frank Burns. Got me thinking, If you would be asked to be involved in a reboot of MASH with current actors, who could you see playing Hawkeye, Trapper (or BJ) Potter (or Blake) etc?

mike said...

Also keen to read of the experience on All In the Family, one of my faves. Jesus, D.S., what the hell kind of comment was that?

Mike Bloodworth said...

D.S.'s is O.K. because he/she/it didn't say anything about nice about Donald Trump.

Mike Bloodworth said...

In a previous F.Q. I asked if you or David had any strengths,weaknesses or specialties that the other complimented and/or compensated for. Your answer was, "No." You said that you and he were pretty much equal in the writing process. You also stated that in fact, many times you couldn't tell which one of you wrote what.
Based on the answer above you two must have been a rarity in this business.


Troy McClure said...

I too am confused as to why DS's vile comment was allowed through.

MikeN said...

Rather than take him off the list you should have sent him a special commentary just for him, that he thinks is the same as what everyone else got. Jokes that if he repeats on air, the joke's on him. For example, making fun of an actress's outfit, when she's really in the hospital.

Todd Everett said...

Here’s the Richard Curtis story, for those not given to cut and paste.

Unknown said...

Jay Moriarty said…

@ Kendall Rivers My partner Mike Milligan and I did some writing for GOOD TIMES, MAUDE and ALL IN THE FAMILY, but we spent most of our time writing and producing THE JEFFERSONS. In fact I just finished writing a memoir titled HONKY IN THE HOUSE which talks in detail about how stories and scripts were developed and written during the first seven seasons of THE JEFFERSONS. A target audience for this book is aspiring writers who would like to know what it’s like to be a staff writer on a sitcom. It’s the kind of book I would like to have read when I first came from Ohio to Hollywood hoping to write comedy for TV.

@ Mike The first live taping I attended was a taping of ALL IN THE FAMILY where Norman Lear did the warm-up and talked to the audience. It was truly a magical experience for me. Current sitcoms at that time were shows like PETTICOAT JUNCTION, BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, GREEN ACRES, etc. The only shows doing relevant comedy were LAUGH-IN and THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR. Those are the shows I was hoping to write for--until Archie Bunker and Norman Lear appeared on the scene. It was a true Game Changer for me and other aspiring writers. And I write all about it in my book. Shameless plug: available on Amazon & Barnes & Noble.

Troy McClure said...

One further interesting fact about Richard Curtis. As well as being a shitty writer, he's also known in the UK as one of the organizers/founders of the charity Comic Relief. A few years ago it emerged that Comic Relief had invested millions in funds that invested in arms manufacturers and tobacco.

With the exception of the second season of Blackadder, everything this guy has written has been garbage, matching his personality.

JR said...

Hi Ken. I've barely been sleeping during the pandemic. The reason that's important is because I've been watching Frasier at 1:00 am on Hallmark Channel, which got me thinking. Was there ever any trepidation of using the same comic premise of never seeing Vera (Norm's wife on Cheers) and Maris (Niles' wife on Frasier)? Both shows handled it well and humorously, but it's certainly a similar gimmick, especially considering one show was a spinoff of the other. Thanks.

bbison said...

I saw the Klugman/Randall Odd Couple at the Fox in St. Louis summer of '94. Julie Hagerty was also in the production. It was delightful.

bruce said...

My father (who wrote a few "Odd Couples") got us into a taping of "All in the Family" early in its run. I was in college and this was almost 50 years ago, but the thing I remember is that the taping began with Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton singing "Those were the days" live. My father explained that this was a way of helping them to "get into the character", and it wouldn't be used in the final version

DougG. said...

You've written before how Gene Reynolds was still part of the M*A*S*H writing process even after he left the series. What about Burt Metcalfe who took over as Executive Producer in Season 6? Was there much overlap in yours (and David's) responsibilities as head writers and Metcalfe?

Kendall Rivers said...

@Jay Moriarty Oh wow, definitely would love to read that book not only as a big fan of Jeffersons but as a sitcom writer whose trying to break out into the business and not just have a stack of scripts collecting dust lol btw, I love Green Acres so watch it now ;)

Kendall Rivers said...

@Jay Moriarty So the book came in and I have to say I'm impressed. The content of course but also like the cover art and the caricature picture of the cast was a nice touch. As a fan of The Jeffersons I'm very pleased.